New Seaham (Seaham Colliery)

New Seaham (Seaham Colliery)

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Christ Church, New Seaham

In September 1828, the town and port of Seaham Harbour were founded. As this was part of the parish of Dalton-le-Dale, most of the baptisms, marriages and burials from the new community were recorded at St. Andrew’s in Dalton village. St. Mary the Virgin continued to serve only [Old] Seaham village, Seaton-with-Slingley and outlying farms. In 1845, St. John’s at Seaham Harbour opened its doors after a new parish was created and detached from St. Andrew’s. Henceforth most of the events of Seaham Harbour were recorded at St. John’s.

  • 1838 – Sinking of Murton Colliery began. Events from this new community were recorded at St. Andrew’s.
  • 1844 – Sinking of Seaton Colliery commenced. Events from this new community were recorded at St. Mary’s.
  • 1849 – Sinking of Seaham Colliery began. Events from this new community were recorded at St. Mary’s.

New Seaham colliery village was constructed from 1844 onwards. The new community was within the parish of St. Mary the Virgin at (Old) Seaham until the building of New Seaham Christ Church in 1857 and the creation of a new parish in 1864. It was lumped with Old Seaham for census purposes until relatively recently.

Available Parish Registers at Durham Record Office

St. Mary the Virgin, (Old) Seaham, Baptisms 1646-1861
St. Mary the Virgin, (Old) Seaham, Marriages 1652-1967
St. Mary the Virgin, (Old) Seaham, Burials 1653-1966
Christ Church, New Seaham, Baptisms 1857-1967
Christ Church, New Seaham, Marriages 1861-1970
Christ Church, New Seaham, Burials 1860-1954
Wesleyan Methodist, New Seaham Cornish St., Baptisms 1870-1946

Also incorporated this site are the following records which are not currently available at Durham Record Office.

St. Cuthbert Roman Catholic, New Seaham, Baptisms 1934-1999
St. Cuthbert Roman Catholic, New Seaham, Marriages 1934-1999
St. Cuthbert Roman Catholic, New Seaham, Burials 1934-1999

Clergymen of New Seaham Christ Church
Edward F. Every, 1894-99
Alexander Ramsbottom, 1899-1912
Richard R. Fenning, 1913-21
Samuel Kearney, 1921-46
Oswald Hogg, 1946-60
William Herbert Jefferson, 1960-72
Douglas W. Pharaoh. 1973-76
Peter C. Holland, 1977-89
D.G. Kennedy, 1990-92
D.A. Roberts, 1994-??

Population growth of New Seaham over the decades:

1801 1811 1821 1831 1841 1851 1861 1871 1881 1891 1901
Seaham (Old & New) 115 121 103 130 153 729 2591 2802 2989 4798 5285

The above census records for 1841-1911 are transcribed and available on this site.

Growth of the Village of New Seaham 1861-91

1861 Census 1871 Census 1881 Census 1891 Census
West Row (23) School Row/Vane Terrace (25) Vane Terrace (23) Vane Terrace (23)
Infant Row (6) Reading Room Row (6) Infant Row (7) Infant Street (7)
California Row (68) California Row (68) California Street (68) California Street (68)
Mount Pleasant (20) Mount Pleasant (20) Mount Pleasant (20) Mount Pleasant (58)
Australia Row (82) Australia Row (66) Australia Street (66) Australia Street (66)
Londonderry Engine Cottages (2) Londonderry Engine Cottages (2) Londonderry Engine Cottages (2) Londonderry Engine Cottages (2)
Office Row (53) Office Row (37) William Street (30) William Street (30)
Butcher’s Row (40) Butchers Row (39) Butcher Street (40) Butcher Street (40)
German Row (22) German/Doctors Row (66) Doctor’s Street (66) Doctor’s Street (66)
Bownden Row(23) Daker’s Row (21) Post Office Street (21) Post Office Street (21)
Church Row (23) Church Row (25) Church Street (26) Church Street (57)
Double Row (32) Double Row (32) School Street (32) School Street (32)
Single Row(24) Railway Row (22) Bank Head Street (22) Bank Head Street (22)
Model Row (35) Model Row (27) Model Street (26) Model Street (26)
New or Cornish Row (57) Cornish Street (57) Cornish Street (57)
Henry Street (59) Henry Street (59)
Seaham Street (59) Seaham Street (59)
Hall Street (50) Hall Street (50)
Cooke Street (20) Cooke Street (20)
Viceroy Street (61)

History of Seaham Colliery

The sinking of Seaton Colliery (the High Pit) by the North Hetton and Grange Colliery Company began in 1844 and production of coal commenced in March 1852 after a long and desperate struggle against flooding. The sinking of Seaham Colliery (the Low Pit) by the 3rd. Marquess of Londonderry commenced in 1849 and it began production not long after Seaton though the actual date is not recorded. The two pits were amalgamated as Seaham Colliery under the control of the Londonderry family in November 1864. There were no less than seven known explosions at the pits, before and after amalgamation. There were three in one year at Seaton in 1852, the first year of production, with six men and boys killed in the last of these. One of the casualties was an 8 year old boy. Another explosion at Seaton in 1862 burnt to death two more workers. The massive explosion in October 1871 miraculously killed only 26. Even more miraculously none died in the huge 1872 blast. Finally 164 men and boys were killed in the calamity of September 1880. Though there were no further explosions there were many single or multiple fatalities at Seaham Colliery after 1880 – Seaham’s graveyards are littered with decaying headstones which testify to that grim truth.

Seaham Colliery Pit Village (New Seaham) was constructed from the mid 1840s onwards and was virtually complete by the time of the 1880 disaster. Another street was built betweeen 1881 and 1891, called Viceroy Street in honour of the office held by the 6th.Marquess of Londonderry from 1886 to 1889. A final small row, Stewart Street (the family name of the Londonderrys), appeared between 1891 and 1895.

By the 1930s much of the housing at Seaham Colliery, cheap and cheerless to begin with, was well past its best and the village was earmarked for wholesale demolition under the Slum Clearance Act. Parkside estate was constructed at the end of that decade and most of the inhabitants transferred en masse to there in 1939/40. Knowing that Westlea and Eastlea council estates were planned to arise on the ruins of their village a few of the inhabitants decided to stay put and wait for the new houses. When war came they were joined by those made homeless in Seaham Harbour by German bombing. The Germans also managed to hit the colliery village, scoring a direct hit on the Seaton Colliery Inn after hours one night in October 1941 and killing the landlady and her friend (this author’s great aunt). Eventually the aptly-named Phoenix was constructed on the site.

The old pit village was finally swept away between 1945 and 1960 but there are still a few remnants left in 1995 (The Miner’s Hall building, High Colliery School, the row of houses on Station Road which incorporates the New Seaham Inn, now called The Kestrel). The village and most of its inhabitants were gone by 1960 but Seaham Colliery itself survived until the late 1980s. It was nationalised in 1947 after a century of ownership by the Londonderry family. In 1987 Seaham was ‘amalgamated’ with Vane Tempest Colliery and the old pit was relegated to the role of being third and fourth shafts for the newer concern. No more coal was produced at Seaham Colliery. The Seaham/Vane Tempest ‘combine’ was closed by British Coal in 1994 and both sites were cleared. Now there is a great open space where Seaham Colliery stood for 150 years.

History of New Seaham

The preparatory working for the sinking of Seaton Colliery or the High Pit began on July 31 1844. The actual sinking of the shaft commenced on August 12 1845. The mine was developed not by the landowner Lord Londonderry but by the North Hetton and Grange Colliery Company, on a site chosen because of its proximity to the Rainton and Seaham waggonway. The main shareholder of this concern was Lord Lambton, 2nd.Earl of Durham, an individual with many other inland pits and who was the second largest producer of coal in County Durham behind Londonderry himself.

The North Hetton and Grange Colliery Company was licensed to exploit only the coal under Londonderry’s land between Seaton and Warden Law, but that canny lord reserved any and all seaward coal for himself. The Marquess it seems was still very nervous about the expense of sinking a new and very deep colliery and preferred others to risk their money in what might yet prove to be a fruitless undertaking. Also, as usual, he was short of cash despite the fact that business was booming. Before very long he had his proof when the North Hetton and Grange Colliery Company discovered deep but rich seams of coal.

Sir Ralph Milbanke, he who had sold the estates of Seaham and Dalden to the Irishman for a song a quarter of a century before, must have turned in his grave. Even before this development Lord Londonderry was probably on paper the richest man in the county of Durham. His numerous pits at Penshaw and in the Rainton and Pittington districts and elsewhere in Durham were at their peak and the demand was such that he could usually sell every ton that he produced. Now, almost by accident, he had secured his family’s future for the next century.

The nearby Mill Inn was known as the ‘Nicky Nack’ and its landlord was dubbed ‘Tommy Nicky-Nack Chilton’ and so Seaton Colliery soon acquired the nickname. Little is known about these early years but a letter survives in the Londonderry Papers at the Durham Record Office which informs us that on January 27 1845 a party of guests travelled from Lord Londonderry’s mansion at Wynyard (near Stockton, now owned by John Hall) to Seaham Harbour to observe the opening ceremony for a new extension to the docks. On the way they passed the digging at Seaton, where a depth of 40 fathoms had been achieved of an anticipated 240 fathoms. At the request of the ladies present two of the ‘sinkers’ ascended from the bottom of the shaft in a large kibble or bucket. They resembled drowned rats more than men but they maintained their dignity and flatly refused to ‘run about and show themselves’ to the spectators.

The pit later made much slower progress due to the water problem. After coal was reached but before it could be exploited a second colliery was begun nearby by the lord of the manor. The reaction of the North Hetton and Grange Colliery Company directors to this development has not been preserved but they cannot have been very amused. Nearly thirty years after the first tapping of the concealed coalfield at Hetton the 3rd. Marquess of Londonderry, now 71, at last took the plunge and sank his first deep coal mine. The sinking of Seaham Colliery or the ‘Low Pit’ commenced on April 13 1849. The Low Pit shaft was 1797 feet deep and the High Pit shaft was 1819 feet deep. Both were 14 feet in diameter. The new mines were the second and third deepest in the country (behind Pemberton Main at Monkwearmouth). The first coal from Seaton was only drawn on March 17 1852, after almost seven years of battles against flooding and quicksand. Seaham began producing a little later after a much shorter battle, but the precise date is unknown.

In the first weeks after coming on stream there were three explosions at Seaton, the last of which, on Wednesday June 16 1852, killed six men and boys and injured several others. Among the dead was a 10 year old boy, Charles Halliday or Holliday. The inquest was held at the Mill Inn with Mr.Morton, Agent of the Earl of Durham, present. It was revealed that naked lights (candles) had been used in the pit, nearly four decades after the invention of the safety lamp. The jury recorded a verdict of accidental death.

To justify their huge outlay of money the Londonderrys’ new Seaham pit needed to be a giant in production terms compared to its predecessors inland and this soon proved to be the case. By 1854 (when it had barely begun production and would soon employ far more) 269 hands were employed, making it as large as any of the Rainton and Penshaw pits owned by Lord Londonderry. By the mid-1870s Seaham/Seaton was producing as much coal as all of the other Londonderry pits at Rainton, Pittington and Penshaw combined. By 1880 the mine employed 1500 men and boys and had an output of half a million tons of coal per year. By the time of the census of 1881 some 3,000 people lived in the village of New Seaham.

Charles Stewart, 3rd.Marquess of Londonderry and 1st.Viscount Seaham, died at his home, Holdernesse House in London’s Park Lane, in March 1854. A new place of worship, Christ Church, was built at New Seaham in 1855 by Lady Frances Anne as a memorial to her husband. It is virtually the only monument to the old tyrant that still stands in the town he created. The church received free heating and lighting courtesy of underground pipes from the colliery 200 yards away. Christ Church also included a graveyard which was to become the last resting place for generations of New Seaham inhabitants. Previously the dead had been interred at either the ancient St.Andrew’s at Dalton-le-Dale or the even older St.Mary’s at Old Seaham or the new graveyard at St.John’s in Seaham Harbour.

Like her late husband the Marchioness was infamous for her parsimony and yet on March 1 1856 this complex character entertained between three and four thousand of her pitmen at Chilton Moor. In 1857 she spent over £1000 to entertain 3,930 of her pitmen, dockers, quarrymen and railwaymen at Seaham Hall, in the presence of the Bishop of Durham and numerous friends. Her friend and protege Benjamin Disraeli recognised in his writings after her death that Frances Anne was a tyrant in her way but it would be fairer to describe her as a benevolent despot. As Durham mine owners went the Londonderrys were actually among the best and the miners of the day preferred to work for them than most others. Bad as they were living conditions at New Seaham were far better than most older mining villages in the county. In the 1850s the Marchioness built Londonderry schools at the Raintons, Kelloe, Old Durham, Penshaw and New Seaham (which still stands) and later her son Henry constructed another at Silksworth. She personally paid the teacher’s salaries and all other expenses and allowed the children of non-employees to attend.

The 1850s saw the building of several streets in the vicinity of the two pits and the creation of a tight-knit community. Window tax was abolished in 1851 and mechanised brick production (with machine-pressed bricks) was developed in 1856, both of which made the process cheaper and easier. The typical ‘through terrace house’ at Seaton/Seaham Colliery had one room downstairs and one upstairs (often divided into two by a partition to provide separate sleeping accomodation for boys and girls). The downstairs room served for cooking, bathing, meals, general living and as sleeping space for parents. The back yard had a dry closet privy (a netty) and a coal shed. Social life centred on the back alley. Some of the streets were built and owned by the North Hetton and Grange Colliery Company, proprietors of Seaton Colliery. The rest were constructed and owned by the Londonderry family, owners of Seaham Colliery. At this distance in time it is difficult to tell who owned what. The first streets, all of which were mentioned in the 1861 census, were:

West Row: which was later called School Row and later still became Vane Terrace.
School Row: which is not to be confused with School Street (see the below Double Row).
Infant Row: Very small. Only six dwellings.
California Row: 1849 saw the California Gold Rush.
Mount Pleasant : which may have been named after a place in northern Ireland near the Londonderry mansion at Mount Stewart or simply because it occupied a good vantage down to the sea.
Australia Row: Australia was a principal destination for British emigrants in this period, especially miners from the northeast of England. Many of them promptly commemorated their roots by naming their new communities after the ones they had left behind. A Newcastle, a Sunderland, a Murton, a Ryhope and yes even a Seaham, were created in New South Wales and survive to this day.
Office Row: which was later called William Street.
Butcher’s Row: Butcher may have been a director/official of the North Hetton and Grange Colliery Company
German Row: later called Doctor’s Street, which in the direction of Sunderland had a fine view of the North Sea (The German Ocean.).
Bownden Row: later called Daker’s Row and later still renamed Post Office Street. Bownden may have been a director/official of the North Hetton and Grange Colliery Company.
Church Row: which faced the new Christ Church
Double Row: later called School Street
Single Row: later called Railway Row, later still renamed Bank Head Street
Model Row: Presumably the builders and owners were proud of this street and gave it a magnificent title.Or maybe they had just run out of names!

Seaton and Seaham Collieries (New Seaham) and Seaham Harbour remained quite separate communities, divided by fields, and connected only by the Rainton & Seaham Railway and a dirt track and the fact of shared ownership by the Londonderrys. In 1863 a Local Board of Health was created to conduct Greater Seaham’s affairs. It was led from 1873-94 by J.B.Eminson, chief financial agent for the Londonderrys in Seaham from 1869-96. The Board became Seaham Harbour Urban District Council by the Local Government Act of 1894. Eminson also led the new body from 1895-96. During his 27 years service he filled the leading position in the town. He was also Chairman of Seaham Magistrates and a member of the Easington Guardians (Work House). Despite the semblance of a kind of democracy after 1863 Greater Seaham was still a family fiefdom.

The Danger of the Mines

At Hartley Colliery in Northumberland in January 1862 over 200 men and boys died of suffocation when the only shaft was blocked by falling machinery. Shortly after this disaster, the greatest single loss of life in the Great Northern Coalfield, the Seaton High Pit and Seaham Low Pit were joined by an underground link. Within weeks, on March 29, a cage rope broke at the Low Pit and the shaft was blocked by stone. Over 400 men and boys and 70 ponies escaped via the High Pit. They would have shared the fate of the Hartley colliers and perished within hours without the connection. The Northumberland and Durham Miner’s Permanent Relief Fund had its origin in the widespread need which followed the Hartley Disaster. Before Hartley it was the individual worker’s resposibility to subscribe to a ‘club’ to cover ‘private’ medical expenses. There were discretionary payments from the mineowners, at a level below that of wages, for some workers who suffered an accident, with the limited objective of retaining the services of skilled workmen temporarily disabled. For those permanently crippled or worse there was nothing and before long they and/or their widows and children were given their marching orders from their colliery houses. The Employer’s Liability Act was still 20 years in the future.

Another explosion on April 6 1864 at Seaton Colliery severely burnt two men, Tristram Heppell and William Fairley. Both died in agony in their homes some days later. Heppell’s father, a master sinker of pits, had been a contemporary and friend of George Stephenson at Killingworth Colliery in Northumberland. Heppell was a member of the Seaham Volunteers and so was given a military funeral at St. Mary’s. Reverend Angus Bethune conducted the service. We shall come across this individual again later in this narrative.

When an Act of Parliament prohibited the working of coal-mines without two outlets from each seam Lady Frances Anne decided that the simplest way to comply with this legislation in the case of Seaham Colliery was to buy Seaton Colliery from the North Hetton and Grange Colliery Company and amalgamate it with Seaham. This was done in November 1864, and was virtually the last business deal she completed for she was dying by then. She died at Seaham Hall on January 20 1865, three days after her 65th.birthday. Her collieries passed to her son Henry, Earl Vane, who succeeded his half-brother Frederick as Marquess of Londonderry in 1872.

Colliery Life

‘Observer’, who wrote ‘Gleanings from the Pit Villages’ in 1866, gave Seaham Colliery high praise in contrast to older Durham pit villages. He commended its roomy dwellings, good gardens and wide streets. The usual outdoor meeting place for men at Seaham Colliery in dispute with the management was the ball alley. This was also used for gambling, fist-fights and games of hand-ball against teams from neighbouring collieries. The surface of the wall eventually deteriorated and it was abandoned to nesting birds in the 1920s.

As the North Hetton and Grange Colliery Company no longer had an interest in the Seaton part of Seaham Colliery or its housing stock any trace of that concern in the street names of the village was now removed by the Londonderrys. Uncharacteristically they did not bestow their own names as had happened at Seaham Harbour and other places, at least not yet: West Row became School Row and only later became Vane Terrace; Infant Row became Reading Room Row; Bownden Row became Daker’s (the new manager of Seaham Colliery) Row; Single Row became Railway Row. One new street appeared, predictably being called New Row. By the time of the 1881 census it had become Cornish Row in honour of the wave of immigrants coming in from that county.

All of the Easington district collieries began to receive a steady stream of Cornishmen and Devonians and their families in the mid-1860s. A street would be eventually be named in honour of the Cornish at Seaham Colliery and a whole district of Murton was taken over by these refugees from the dying lead and tin industries and nicknamed O’Cornwall. Wingate Grange Colliery also received a very large contingent. Seaham Colliery also absorbed Scots, Irish and Welsh and also a group from Norfolk. Wood Dalling and neighbouring villages must have been stripped bare of their agricultural labourers, lured north by the prospect of higher and consistent wages by the agents of the Marquess of Londonderry and other coalowners. Most of these people would retain their accents for the rest of their lives but their children and grandchildren were completely assimilated into the host community and became Geordies. Seaham Colliery must have been a very cosmopolitan place in these early days and it cannot have been unusual to hear a dozen accents during a day’s work at the pit.

The mother and stepfather of the alleged mass murderess Mary Ann Cotton moved to New Seaham from South Hetton in the early 1860s. George and Margaret Stott took up residence in California Street at an unknown number and in the summer of 1865 took in Mary Ann’s only surviving child, Isabella Mowbray, aged 6. Mary Ann had lost her husband William Mowbray to typhus in Hendon at the start of the year and her other daughter Margaret Jane had succumbed to the same disease at Seaham Harbour in May. Now Mary Ann needed time to sort herself out and farmed her child out to its grandmother and step-grandfather. She moved to Sunderland and got a job as a nurse at the Infirmary. There she met a patient, George Ward, and married him before the year was out. Mysteriously he was dead within months of a disease which apparently baffled his doctors. At the end of 1866, within weeks of being widowed a second time, she took a job at Pallion as housekeeper to a well-to-do shipyard official James Robinson, who had just lost his own wife and badly needed female help with his five children. The youngest of these, a sickly infant boy, died within days of her arrival.

A few weeks later, in the spring of 1867 Mary Ann, a “nurse” remember, was summoned back to New Seaham to look after her mother who was dying of the liver disease hepatitis. Margaret Stott expired within a week and was buried at New Seaham Christ Church. Mary Ann then quarrelled with her stepfather over a few sheets she claimed had been hers. He had never liked her much and now told her what he thought of her and ordered her to leave his house and take her child with her. George Stott already had eyes on a comely widow, Hannah Paley, who lived in the same street, and he didn’t want the little girl around cramping his style. He married Hannah Paley not long after but Mary Ann was not invited to the wedding and in fact never came to Seaham again. Within weeks of Mary Ann’s return to Pallion, Isabella Mowbray was dead, two more of Robinson’s children also, and the “housekeeper” was pregnant by her employer. George Stott did see his stepdaughter one more time. He was her last visitor in the condemned cell at Durham Gaol in March 1873 a few days before she was hanged for the murder of yet another child, a son of her fourth (bigamous) husband Frederick Cotton. Her mother Margaret Stott and her daughter Isabella Mowbray are included among the 21 people that Mary Ann Cotton has been accused of murdering either for the insurance money or because they were somehow in her way.

The first mass meeeting of the lodges of the new union, the DMA (Durham Miners’ Association), took place at Wharton Park in the city of Durham in July 1871. Just three months later on Wednesday October 25 1871 26 men and boys were killed in another explosion at Seaham Colliery. On the day before the tragedy a mass meeting of young men and boys had determined to ask for some alteration in their bonds – in particular a reduction in their hours of labour. For many below the rank of hewer the working day lasted from their rising at 3am until they returned home filthy at about 6.15pm. There was barely time for any relaxation before going to bed. A deputation was sent to see the manager Dakers but he refused to give them an answer until the next conclusion of the bond in April 1872. Dakers refused even to see a second delegation.In consequence a mass meeting of all the men and boys was called for the Thursday night with a view to laying the pit idle. The disaster intervened.

The explosion of Wednesday October 25 1871 occurred at 11.30 pm, otherwise the death-toll would have been much higher – by now the colliery was employing 1100 men and boys. The shock was felt at Seaham Harbour.John Clark, aged 9, sitting on the surface in a cabin near the pit shaft, was blown 10 yards by the explosion. The force of the blast was such that many ponies were killed in their underground stables 1.5 miles away from the epicentre. Two men named Hutchinson, father and son, working as ‘marrows’ (marras), fired the shot which triggered the blast. The father, Thomas senior, survived the explosion but was badly injured. For days he hovered between life and death and medical opinion concluded that he could not survive. But survive he did – for he was destined to be killed in the 1880 explosion. Thomas Hutchinson junior left a pregnant widow and two children. Manager Dakers and Head Viewer Vincent Corbett went down the pit to assess the situation and made a decision which to some seemed harsh and to others seemed like murder. The ‘stoppings’ were rushed up to starve the fire of oxygen and save the mine irrespective of the men thereby entombed. The explosion occurred on Wednesday – by Sunday the furnace was re-lighted at the shaft bottom for ventilation. The men were somehow persuaded to return to work while the bodies of their colleagues lay entombed for several weeks in nearby workings. Religious decency then laid much greater emphasis on proper burial of a body in consecrated ground.Four of the bodies were brought out immediately after the explosion but the remaining 22 were not recovered until December 20. The appeal fund produced just over £2,000. The inquest was held at the New Seaham Inn (now called the Kestrel). Verdict – Accidental death. Just as the village began to recover from the tragedy it was struck another mortal blow with an outbreak of smallpox. There was another explosion in 1872 but there was no loss of life or injury.

Manager Dakers either retired, died or moved on at the start of 1874. He was replaced by a 21 year old, Mr.Thomas Henry Marshall Stratton, who was fated to be in charge when the 1880 disaster occurred. By then he was still only 28 and due to move on from Seaham Colliery to his next post. The man had no luck. There was another county-wide coal strike in 1879, the first major confrontation since the the Great Strike of 1844 and, as usual, the miners were defeated. Before the village of Seaham Colliery could properly recover from this ruinous episode an even greater disaster struck in the following year. The death of one collier started a train of events which led to an immense tragedy. A man called Robert Guy was run over and killed by a set of tubs on the Maudlin engine-plane at Seaham Colliery on August 7 1880. Adverse and critical remarks made at the inquest a few days later obliged manager Stratton to have refuge holes from the rolling tubs made larger and more frequent to prevent a recurrence of the tragedy. This work went on for several weeks and it may well have been a shot fired in the course of it which triggered the great explosion.

In that hot August of 1880 the Seaham Volunteer Artillery Brigade distinguished itself in the big gun shooting of the National Artillery Competition at Shoeburyness, picking up a beautiful trophy and over £200 in prize money, a very handsome sum in those days. The team members were welcomed back to Seaham as heroes and their crackshot Corporal Hindson was carried shoulder-high through the town. The next big event in the town’s social calendar was Seaham’s Annual Flower Show, to be held in the grounds of Seaham Hall from Thursday September 9 to Sunday the 11th. The 5th.Marquess himself, a rather shy and unassuming man, was to make one of his rare visits in order to present the prizes. Indeed he was to honour the town his parents had founded with his presence for an entire week. As it turned out he was to stay for a good deal longer than he anticipated. Many of the miners at Seaham Colliery had entries in the show and some of these men swapped shifts with those disinterested in horticultural affairs in order that they might attend. It was to prove a fateful decision for those who should have been working on the Tuesday/Wednesday night and for those who ended up working when ordinarily they would have been at home sound asleep.

At Seaham Colliery there were three shifts per day for hewers (everyone else worked much longer hours) of 7 hours each, covering the period from 4 am to 11.30 pm. The shifts were: 1) Fore Shift, 4 am to 11.30 am 2) Back Shift, 10 am to 5.30 pm 3) Night Shift, 4 pm to 11.30 pm. Each shift involved some 500 men and boys and at the overlap of the shifts there could be over 1,000 men in the pit. From 10 pm to 6 am, when the colliery was comparatively quiet, was the maintenance shift, which employed far fewer workers. Fortuitously the 1880 explosion took place at 2.20 am during one such maintenance shift, 100 minutes before the start of the Fore shift, which is why only 231 men and boys were below ground.The tragedy could have been much much worse, eclipsing the disasters at Hartley and West Stanley.

— by Tony Whitehead

Continue to Part Two: The Sep 1880 Disaster

Murton (East Morton)

Murton (East Morton)

Available Parish Registers at Durham Record Office

St. Andrew’s, Dalton-le-Dale, Baptisms 1653-1917
St. Andrew’s, Dalton-le-Dale, Marriages 1653-1971
St. Andrew’s, Dalton-le-Dale, Burials 1653-1893
Holy Trinity, Murton, Baptisms 1888-1968
Holy Trinity, Murton, Marriages 1907-1971
Holy Trinity, Murton, Burials 1893-1966
Murton Albion Street Methodists, Marriages 1922-55.

For other Murton records before and after the opening of Holy Trinity in 1875, consult the parish records for Dalton-le-Dale.

Population changes to Murton in the 19th.Century were:

1801 1811 1821 1831 1841 1851 1861 1871 1881 1891 1901
East Morton (Murton) 75 71 72 98 521 1387 2104 3017 4710 5052 6514

The above census records for 1841-1901 are transcribed and available on this site.

Historically Murton was one of the four constabularies of the parish of St. Andrew at  Dalton-le-Dale. A hamlet of half a dozen houses and farmsteads on the road from Dalton-le-Dale to Durham until 1838, it was also known as East Morton or Morton-in-the-Whins. Morton or Murton is a very common English place name, being a corruption of Moor-town. The village was known as East Morton to differentiate it from several others in the county and especially from Morton, near Fencehouses, which also had a colliery, called Morton Grange.

Centuries of rural tranquility came to an abrupt end for Murton in 1831 when the Sunderland Dock Company pushed through a passenger and freight line in the direction of Durham, with a branch line to the new pit at South Hetton and the projected new colliery at Haswell. This passed just west of Murton which was given its own station, Murton Junction. Completed by 1835 the directors of the new line were unconvinced by the early locomotives produced by George Stephenson and others and instead opted for fixed engines which could manage steep gradients far better. Later locomotives had the power to cope with gradients but by then it was too late and the company was stuck with the archaic method of transport until it was taken over by the giant North Eastern Railway in 1854.

The advantage of fixed engines was that they overcame the necessity for much of the excavation work required to make a railway line as level as possible. Consequently, for reasons of economy, the Sunderland to Durham (Shincliffe) & Haswell ended up with some of the steepest gradients in the British railway network and was later used to test the power and brakes on new models of locomotives. From Ryhope to Haswell via Seaton, Murton Junction and South Hetton was a continuous upslope. One night in the 1890s the brakes on a downtrack loco failed at Murton and the runaway train raced past Seaton before derailing itself on the curve ahead. Several people were killed.

The disadvantage to fixed engines was that they made a journey tortuous in the extreme due to the need to change haulage equipment for each leg of a journey. From Sunderland to Ryhope, which was flat, the trains were hauled by a locomotive. There the loco was replaced by a chain connected to the fixed engine house at Murton Junction. The coaches were than pulled uphill, stopping at Seaton on the way. At Murton the chain was changed for another one connected to Haswell fixed engine house. To get to Durham was even more complicated. It was necessary to change trains at Murton Junction and gravity brought the coaches (still connected by a chain) downhill to Hetton. From there to Durham (Shincliffe) via Pittington, Broomside and Sherburn House was comparatively flat but there were several more fixed engines to attatch to en route. It was barely quicker than walking but this method of transport was still being used some 20 years after the development of powerful locos which could do the entire journey on their own regardless of the gradients.

From 1835 onwards therefore, a very early date in railway history, Murton was directly connected to the outside world. Sunderland was now just 30 minutes away and London could be reached within a day. The busiest day of the year after 1871 was always the Durham Miners Gala when tens of thousands of East Durham mining folk would travel on the line to the county town. Murton miners and their bands would march in procession to the Junction station to board the special trains provided. Though hundreds of thousands of people must have used Murton station in its heyday few photos of it are known to have survived.

The first attempt by Colonel Thomas Braddyll’s South Hetton Coal Company to sink a new colliery at East Morton or Murton took place in 1838 but this collapsed after just a few months due to serious flooding problems. Sinking began again at another site in 1840 but coal was not finally drawn until 1843. It was the most expensive coal sinking yet to have taken place in Great Britain. The effort and money involved finished its owner as a major player in the Durham coalfield. The pit, originally called Dalton New Winning, was linked up to the South Hetton (Braddyll) Railway and the new port and town of Seaham Harbour. Braddyll, principal shareholder of the South Hetton Coal Company, went bankrupt in 1846 and his stock went to, among others, the Pemberton family of The Barnes, Sunderland, later owners of Hawthorn Towers, who had almost ruined themselves in the sinking of Monkwearmouth Colliery (originally called Pemberton Main).

The census of June 6 1841, the first to record any personal details, was taken about half way through the sinking phase, so only ‘sinkers’ were mentioned, not proper coal miners. The real miners did not arrive until the pit was ready for production in 1843. Everything was described by the enumerator of 1841 as ‘Murton (or Morton) New Winning’ so we have few clues as to which were the first streets.

One of the residents, an 8 year old girl, a certain Mary Ann Robson, was destined to become known nationwide when she was in her 40th. year. She probably arrived with her parents Michael and Margaret (nee Lonsdale) Robson and her brother Robert from Hazard Pit at East Rainton in c. 1838 when she was about 5 and so to her Murton would always have seemed like her home village. History knows her best as Mary Ann Cotton (her fourth, last and bigamous husband was Frederick Cotton), allegedly Great Britain’s most prolific murderer, who was accused of as many as 21 murders but was convicted of only one, that of her stepson, one of the three Cotton boys she may have disposed of. Her usual motivation it seems was insurance money but some of her victims may simply have gotten in her way. She was hanged at Durham Gaol in March 1873. Her father Michael Robson declared himself to be a ‘sinker’ in the 1841 census. The family probably lived in the Durham Place area of Murton, demolished in the 1950s. Michael Robson succeeded in falling down one of the (still shallow, a mere 300 feet or so) pits of the projected mine in 1842 and his mangled body was brought to his home on a wheelbarrow inside a sack enscribed with the legend ‘Property of the South Hetton Coal Company’. Inside a year his widow, who otherwise would have had to give up the colliery house, married another miner and fellow Methodist, George Stott, who hailed from nearby South Hetton. He would later claim to have raised Mary Ann and her brother. The Robson/Stott clan were present in Murton throughout the troublesome 1840s and were recorded again there in the 1851 census.

Hardly had coal-drawing begun at ‘Dalton New Winning’ in 1843 when a total strike commenced across the Great Northern Coalfield on April 5 1844. A few days later the first general meeting of miners took place at Shadon Hill on Gateshead Fell. Over 40,000 people attended. It was rumoured beforehand that the men from the new super-pit at Dalton/Murton had declined to join their brothers in industrial action. When it was announced to the great crowd that the Murton men were indeed present the whole mass rose to their feet and cheered till they were exhausted. The Murton men joined the uprising but this could not prevent the eventual crushing of the miners and their union. Even the workhouses were closed to the strikers. Magistrates and clergymen alike gave their sanction and protection to this policy. Shopkeepers were threatened with ruin by the coalowners and authorities if they helped the miners with credit. At least 72 collieries in Northumberland & Durham were affected by this costly dispute. The strike collapsed after 20 weeks.

On the morning of Tuesday August 15 1848 fourteen men and boys were killed by an explosion at Murton Colliery. Twelve of these actually lived in South Hetton, sister colliery and community to Murton. These were:

  • Matthew Besom, 16 (No Trace in 1841 census of SH (South Hetton) & M (Murton)
  • John Dickenson, 12 (No Tace at SH & M 1841)
  • Edward Noble, 23 (Resident at South Hetton 1841)
  • Edward Haddick or Haddock (No Trace at SH & M in 1841)
  • William Raffell or Raffle, 32 (Family present at South Hetton 1851)
  • Christopher Raffell or Raffle, 10 (Family present at SH in 1851)
  • William Baldwin, 25 (No trace at SH & M)
  • James Hall, 40 (Resident at South Hetton 1841)
  • Thomas Stubbs, 27 (Resident at South Hetton 1841)
  • Joseph Tones, 66 (No Trace at SH & M)
  • Richard Bloomfield, 20 (His family were at South Hetton in 1841 ?)
  • David Rumley, 12 (Resident at South Hetton in 1841)
  • John Robson, a boy (Age not specified in newspapers) (Resident at South Hetton 1841)
  • Thomas Lawson senior, 41 (Resident at South Hetton 1841)
  • Thomas Lawson junior, 14, was badly burnt and for days he hovered between life and death at his home in South Hetton. At last he pulled through.

The Durham Chronicle covered the inquest at which the following were called as witnesses:

  • Henry Pace, Overman (Resident at South Hetton 1841)
  • Anthony Gray (Resident at South Hetton 1841)
  • John Robinson (At least four men and boys with this name were resident at South Hetton & Murton in 1841)
  • John Teasdale (Resident at South Hetton in 1841)
  • James Dixon, a boy (Resident at South Hetton 1841)
  • William Armstrong, Viewer at Wingate Grange Colliery
  • Thomas Jones of Murton (Not present at South Hetton or Murton in 1841 & 1851)
  • Thomas Graydon of Murton (Resident at Murton 1841)
  • Edward Potter, Viewer of Murton Colliery (Resident at South Hetton as manager of that concern in 1841).

The verdict of the jury was ‘Accidental Death. No blame attributable to anyone’ So none of the dependents could claim a penny from the South Hetton Coal Company. The Employers’ Liability Act was far in the future.

As had happened in 1841, the 1851 census enumerator for the embryonic community described all of the streets as ‘Murton Colliery’ so we are once more deprived priceless clues about the township’s early development. The Victoria, Colliery Inn and Travellers Rest pubs were all mentioned so at least we have something to chew on. Mary Ann Robson (Cotton), now 18, was mentioned again. She was still living with her mother, stepfather and brother, probably still in the Durham Place area. By the summer of the following year she was pregnant by a newcomer to Murton, a young miner called William Mowbray, and was quietly married to him at Newcastle Register Office. They went from there to Cornwall where he had landed a job as a storeman with a railway construction company. They returned with a child to the northeast in 1857. They can be found in the census at South Hetton in 1861. Mary’s Ann’s ‘career’ may have started with the child she brought back from Cornwall or even with some of the other children she had and ‘lost’ there. Some authorities credit her with as many as 21 murders but the evidence for any of them before 1865 is very weak or non-existent. She was hanged for one she definitely did do at Durham Gaol in March 1873.

At last in 1861 the census enumerator gave some clues as to the streets of early Murton. He repeated the errors of the 1841 and 1851 enumerators and described the first large section of housing he dealt with as simply ‘Murton Colliery’. But for the next section of his stint he mentioned: Surgery Row (not mentioned in later censuses), Coke Row (which became East Street), New House Row or Sinkers Row (which later became part of Durham Place), North Plantation Row (which became Shipperdson Street), South Plantation Row (which later became South Street), Cross Row (not mentioned in later censuses), Tile Row (which later became Railway Street), Chapel Row (which later became another part of Durham Place), Cottage Row and Sandgate Row (which later merged and became Owen Street), Double Row (which later became Lancaster Street), Smokey Row (which later merged with Front Row to become Green Street) & Back Houses (which were not mentioned in later censuses). In fact, though the names of many streets would change, the village was now almost complete apart from the area which would become known as ‘Cornwall’.

Mentioned in the 1861 census of Murton were a few Irish and Welsh families but not one from Devon or Cornwall. The Cornish and Devonian tin and copper industry collapsed in the early 1860s in the face of overseas competition and many of the workers migrated to the northeast and other coalmining areas. By the time of the 1871 census there were some 25 families all living in the same part of Murton, a brand new block of 12 rows which had not existed ten years earlier. This was the origin of the name ‘Cornwall’ for that area, officially known as ‘Greenhill’. There is still a Cornwall Estate in Murton today, a council estate, but ‘Old Cornwall’ is long gone, demolished in the 1950s and 1960s.

The first of these migrants were merely the scouts, the vanguard, of far more who would appear in time for the censuses of 1881 and 1891. The same phenomenon can be observed in the rest of Easington District in the censuses of 1861-91 inclusive, especially at New Seaham and Wingate Grange collieries. A row was named Cornish Street at New Seaham, an entire district at Murton. The immigrants came from such places as Collumpton, Horrabridge, Egbuckland, Beerferris, Tavistock, Whitechurch, Walkhampton, Oakhampton, Mary Tavy and Inwardleigh in Devon and Calstock, Beeralstone, Callington, Liskeard, Stoke Climsland, St. Germans, Northill, St. Ives and St. Just in Cornwall. The following southwestern surnames appeared in Murton and Easington District for the first time in the 1860s and are still present today:

Blackmore, Newcombe, Tremaine, Colville, Bolt, Cornish, Hampton, Milford, Nancarrow, Peardon, Main, Pascoe, Trewicke, Tilley, Hemphill, Bray, Spry, Lavis, Dashper, Beer, Henwood, Hocking, Vine, Blackwell, Pine and Jane.

The 12 rows of ‘Cornwall’ may all have been completed by the time of the 1871 census but the enumerator of that year mentioned only 4th. and 5th. rows specifically. He gave the other rows different names which proved to be shortlasting, like Back Road, High Row and Mechanics Row. Also in 1871 Hart Bushes Row (later called Johnsons Row and then Murton Street) and Wood Row appeared (later called Villiers Street). In 1875 Murton at last received its own Anglican church, Holy Trinity. The Miners’ Hall was erected in the same year. In 1879 Murton, like many other Durham mining villages, was ruined by the 6 week county-wide strike from April 5 to May 16, the first serious confrontation between men and ‘Masters’ since 1844.

In the 1881 census Woods Terrace, Church Street, Back Church Street and Church Road all appeared for the first time. Fortunately for posterity and local historians the enumerators of that year thoughtfully explained the changes in street names which had occurred since the last census:

Wood Row became Villiers Street
High Row + High Tile Row + Overmans Row became Church Street
1st. & 2nd. Rows at Greenhill became Pilgrim Street
3rd. Row at Greenhill became Model Street
4th. & 5th. Rows at Greenhill became Albion Street
6th. Row at Greenhill now became one side of Princess Street
7th. Row at Greenhill now became the other side of Princess Street
8th. & 9th. Rows at Greenhill became Silver Street
10th. & 11th. Rows at Greenhill became Alfred Street
12th. Row at Greenhill became Talbot Street
Part of Sinkers Row + All of Chapel Row became Durham Place
Tile Row became Railway Street
Front Row + Smokey Row became Green Street
Double Row became Lancaster Street
Cottage Row + Sandgate Row became Owen Street
Johnsons Row became Murton Street
North Plantation Row became Shipperdson Street
Coke Row + Coke House became East Street
South Plantation Row became South Street
NB: North Street and New Albion Street were constructed between 1881and 1891 to complete ‘Cornwall’ (Greenhill).

Murton was complete by the time of the 1897 map. Council housing arrived only in the 1920s. A further colliery estate, with just four rows, nicknamed ‘Wembley’, opened on the same day as the Empire Stadium in north London in 1923. Four men were killed in an explosion at Murton on December 21 1937. Thirteen died in an explosion on June 26 1942 during World War Two. Since the war much of old Murton, including ‘Cornwall’ has been demolished to make way for council housing. Murton Colliery and Hawthorn Shaft combine were closed and demolished in 1991. Now a great empty site stands in its place and the nearest coalmine is over a hundred miles away.

In the 1950s passenger services ended on the old Sunderland to Durham & Hartlepool (via Haswell) line. The track stayed in place between South Hetton (and the projected Hawthorn Shaft which would raise coal from Eppleton, Elemore and Murton collieries) and the coast railway at Ryhope. Thus coal could still be transported from the few surviving collieries to Sunderland for export. In 1991 Murton and Hawthorn were closed and the last section of line was dismantled. One unlucky driver, travelling on the Seaham to Houghton road at Seaton, was dazzled by the morning sunshine and failed to see the warning lights flashing at the railway crossing. He was killed by one of the last trains to pass through, whose job was to take up the railway behind it. The entire trackbed of this beautiful old railway from Ryhope (A19 Flyover) to the former Hart Station (some 11 miles) has now been turned into a continuous walkway which parallels the western border of Easington District and passes the sites of several defunct collieries.

Murton Colliery Strikes

  • 1883 (August 20-25), both Murton and South Hetton collieries struck on behalf of two sacked hewers.
  • 1891 (June 13 to August 17), ‘Lowes’ strike (local)
  • 1892 (January 10 to March 12), 3 month County strike
  • 1910 (January 1 to April 5), the ‘8 Hours’ strike (The Pea-Heap Strike, see below)
  • 1912 (March 1 to April 6), ‘Minimum Wage’ strike (first national mining strike)
  • 1920 (October 18 to November 3) 2 week strike
  • 1921 (April 1 to July 1), National Lockout
  • 1926 (May 1 to November 30), General Strike, then miners on their own.
  • 1973-74, National strike, which effectively brought down the Tory government.
  • 1985-85, Last, longest and most bitter of all. Miners led by Arthur Scargill. Resulted in the destruction of the rump Durham Coalfield.

Etched deep in Murton’s memory is the ‘8 Hours’ strike of 1910, known locally as the ‘Pea-Heap Strike’. In that bitterly cold winter Murtonians rapidly ran out of coal and were obliged to pillage the colliery ‘Pea-Heap’, a mountain of pea-sized pieces of coal considered unsuitable for sale and unwanted by anyone except as ballast or as the nucleus for railway embankments. It would burn however and there was nothing else. Eventually the rate of pilfering became so bad that the South Hetton Coal Company called in security men. These were soon intimidated by the local people, especially the women. They breed them tough in Murton. Then police were introduced, not only from other parts of the kingdom but also and especially from Ireland. The usual British Empire trick of divide and conquer. Local police would have turned a blind eye but the Irish constabulary relished the opportuunity of being given free licence to beat up English people, any English people. Ancient racial scores could be settled and no questions asked. The situation eventually deteriorated into a cat and mouse game for the police could not guard all of the vast colliery complex at the same time. On one occasion a pitched battle was fought between the two sides, with the Murtonians almost succeeding in outflanking the Irish police with a cunning pincer movement. Fortunately for all sides the thaw came and the strike petered out. Murton soon got back to normality, which meant the production of coal for a country about to go to war.

Some Murton Street & Building Names

Cornwall House: Built about 1879, possibly for manager Bailes
Lady Adeline Terrace (1899): After Ethel Adeline Pottinger (later Baroness Knaresborough), granddaughter of Reverend E.H. Shipperdson (Shipperdson Street), owner of most of Murton. Her son Claude (Claude Terrace) Henry (Henry Street), born in 1887, was killed in the Great War.

J.H.B. Forster (Forster Avenue) was chairman of the South Heton Coal Company in 1923 when ‘Wembley’ was constructed.

Ada and Ellen streets were named after the daughters of the constructors of the streets, Benjamin & Temple. Lancaster Street was named after Joseph Lancaster, founder of the schools ‘Monitorial’ system. Owen Street was named after Robert Owen, the pioneer of infant schools and the cooperative movement. Villiers Street was named after Charles Pelham Villiers, M.P., ardent advocate for free trade and Poor Law reform.

— by Tony Whitehead